In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mexican Migration to the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Post-1970s Anthropological Anthologies
  • Research, Policy Documents, and Data Sources
  • Documentaries and Films
  • Encyclopedias and Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Migrant Labels and Metaphors

Anthropology Mexican Migration to the United States
Luis F.B. Plascencia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0082


Since the early 1970s, academic analyses of Mexican migration to the United States have become a sizeable scholarly literature. Scholars from the disciplines of anthropology, economics, geography, history, law, political science, and sociology have dedicated much attention to understanding the multiple forces that stimulate and sustain the mobility of individuals from Mexico to the United States. Anthropologists have a long-standing interest on the topic of Mexican migration. The specific interest on the topic, however, emerged adventitiously, later it was secondary, and became a primary interest around the 1980s. Anthropologists engaged with the topic of Mexican migration have collaborated with scholars in other disciplines and maintained a dialogue with scholars publishing outside of anthropology. Particular interests within the broader topic of Mexican migration shape the actual conversations and interactions. Anthropologists engaged with legal and public policy dimensions of the topic, for example, keep abreast of research carried out by political scientists, scholars of law, and public policy researchers. Research carried out by social/cultural anthropologists has played an important role in examining localized dimensions of Mexican migration in Mexico and the United States, and in elucidating the impacts of global processes in shaping the motivations of households and individuals in initiating and maintaining the ongoing human movement and transnational relations between communities in the two nations. It also has informed the development of theoretical arguments regarding human migration and local impacts of Neoliberal policies. This article focuses on English-language published research by social/cultural anthropologists on the topic of Mexican migration, principally research published in the United States and focuses on the migration process. It does not focus on presenting the significant scholarship on the experience of Mexican-origin communities throughout the United States. A separate bibliography would need to be developed to adequately cover the regional dimension of the topic. The subsection on Local/Regional Communities can serve as a starting point for graduate students and scholars interested in exploring the expanding literature since the late 1980s. In the case of topics that have not received significant attention from anthropologists, the citations are supplemented with scholarship of non-anthropologists. This article focuses on published books, thus it does not seek to synthesize the large volume of journal articles. Undergraduate and graduate students interested in the voluminous literature found in journals can review the journals cited as well examine scholarly databases such as JSTOR and Academic Premier.

General Overviews

Anthropologists have been engaged with the topic of Mexican migration since the 1920s. This initial interest emerged serendipitously. Manuel Gamio, who had studied at Columbia University under Franz Boas (the “father” of US anthropology), chose to leave Mexico because of internal governmental politics. Upon contact with the anthropologist Robert Redfield and Edith Abbott in the school of social work at The University of Chicago, Gamio was encouraged to carry out a study of Mexican migrants in the United States—a topic he had not researched before. A Social Science Research Council grant in 1926–1927 allowed him to carry out a national study that led to the publication of two important works, Gamio 1971a and Gamio 1971b (originally published in 1930 and 1931). After the Second World War, anthropologists indirectly turned their attention to Mexican migration. This indirect interest emerged from the work carried out in Mexican rural communities in the 1920s to 1970s by anthropologists such as Robert Redfield, Manning Nash, Oscar Lewis, George Foster, Ralph Beals, May Díaz, Paul Friedrich, Eric Wolf, and others. Between 1930 and 1950, Redfield published four classic ethnographic works on Mexican peasant communities in Mexico (see Redfield 1929). These publications became the center of later re-studies by younger anthropologist such as Oscar Lewis. The observation that individuals from rural communities were migrating to urban places such as Mexico City, and some to the United States, led to an interest in examining processes beyond local rural communities in Mexico. Starting in the 1960s and early 1970s, scholars in Mexico and the United States turned their attention to topics related to Mexican migration and Mexican-descent communities in the United States. Romano and Ignacio 1960, an article in American Anthropologist focused on a Mexican “immigrant enclave” in South Texas. The first article published by the International Migration Review that focused on an element related to Mexican migration was Jones 1970, and a year later the journal published its first special issue on “Mexican and Mexican American Migrants,” Shannon and Kemper 1971. Mason 1969 is a dissertation on the “Bracero Program” and can be thought of as the starting point of a literature that is now quite significant in volume. The essay on “commuters” (Jones 1970) remains unique because of the date of its publication, and because the topic has received almost no attention by anthropologists or other social science scholars. Since the 1970s, a steady flow of scholarly work has examined elements within the topic of Mexican migration. The items listed here provide important chronological markers to the scholarly study of Mexican migration. Anthropologists interested in examining the development of the study of Mexican migration to the United States should become familiar with these early efforts.

  • Gamio, Manuel. 1971a. Mexican immigration to the United States: A study of human migration and adjustment. New York: Dover.

    Originally published in 1930. This work is considered the first anthropological monograph examining the economic and social life of Mexican migrants in the United States. Many of the issues of concern to later scholars are introduced in this volume such as geographic distribution, wages, social mobility, remittances, and forms of entry.

  • Gamio, Manuel. 1971b. The life story of the Mexican immigrant. New York: Dover.

    Originally published in 1931. The volume is an important compilation of the life histories and experience of Mexican migrants interviewed after the First World War and before the Great Depression. This is also the period that preceded the first large-scale deportation of persons of Mexican descent by US authorities.

  • Jones, Lamar B. 1970. Alien commuters in the United States labor markets. International Migration Review 4.3: 65–89.

    DOI: 10.2307/3002325

    Jones, an economist, published the first article in the journal that focuses on Mexican migration. The article focuses on the “Mexican commuter”: individuals who were granted special status that allowed them to live in Mexico and commute to work in the United States.

  • Mason, John D. 1969. The aftermath of the Bracero: A study of the economic impact on the agricultural hired labor market of Michigan from the termination of Public Law 78. PhD diss., Michigan State Univ.

    Mason’s dissertation is the earliest dissertation in the ProQuest database that explicitly focuses on a dimension central to Mexican migration: the Second World War contract labor program. Although the researcher is not an anthropologist, the dissertation represents an important marker within the database.

  • Redfield, Robert. 1929. The antecedents of Mexican immigration to the United States. The American Journal of Sociology 35.3: 433–438.

    DOI: 10.1086/215057

    Based on research material compiled by Manuel Gamio (1926–1927), Redfield synthesizes key issues raised in Gamio’s unpublished book manuscript—a manuscript originally published in English, and translated, from Spanish to English, and edited by Margaret Park Redfield. Gamio 1971b was translated into Spanish from the English version and published in 1969.

  • Romano, V., Octavio Ignacio. 1960. Donship in a Mexican-American community in South Texas. American Anthropologist 62.6: 966–976.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1960.62.6.02a00030

    Although the title does not suggest its focus is on Mexican migrants, the actual essay focuses on a “Mexican immigrant enclave” Romano labels “Frontera” in South Texas. Romano’s primary interest is with first-generation migrants who escaped the Mexican Revolution and their use of the “don” form of respect.

  • Shannon, Lyle W., and Robert V. Kemper, eds. 1971. Mexican and Mexican American migrants: Current U.S. immigration legislation. Special issue: International Migration Review 5.3.

    Includes the work of anthropologists and sociologists. Represents the first special issue of the journal that focused on Mexican migration and Mexican Americans.

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